Music may be an auditory medium, but its role is an integral ingredient in the success of visual projects in TV, films and commercials. Singers, composers, music bookers and others working in this intersection joined Variety in the virtual Music for Screens Week from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, sharing their expertise on the importance of music in recent projects. Covering topics from talk shows to composition for 2020’s critically praised “Mank,” the professionals provided valuable insight into music’s role in the industry.
Read below for a list of 10 takeaways from the Music for Screens Week.
Filmmakers Recognize Music as a Strong Storytelling Device
“I have not come into contact with a director who doesn’t know the power of music and storytelling,” said Germaine Franco, composer for films like “Someone Great.”
During the State of Scoring Composers Panel, presented by ASCAP, Franco and other composers discussed the increasing experimentation in film and TV scores. Though sometimes filmmakers don’t know the exact musical terms, Hildur Gudnadóttir, who composed for “Joker,” said creators are often very tuned into the emotional weight added through music.
“I’m sure every filmmaker has high ambitions, and hopes and dreams for what the music can bring to the project, because music is obviously, in my opinion, one of the most important parts of storytelling,” Gudnadóttir said. “People are generally willing to take more chances and try out unconventional sounds and scores, and I feel that there’s a lot of excitement for exploration.”
Singing and Acting Have Similar Emotional Roots
Mary J. Blige, taking part in a keynote conversation with moderator Jazz Tangcay, offered bits of wisdom on everything from making wine to the correlation between acting and singing. The actor, who helped write the song “See What You’ve Done” for the documentary “Belly of the Beast,” said to craft or bring to life either a song or a script, success is often found in pulling from past experiences.
“You have to pull from a real place to make something … in a script come to life,” Blige said. “If you have a real place to pull them, people are going to believe you. Just like with a song, you have to, for me, live some real things in order to sing some real things and touch people’s lives.”
TV Scores Free Writers to Express Raw Emotions Through Sound
The Marcus Mumford keynote, also moderated by Tangcay, delved into the Mumford & Sons lead singer’s transition into television composition for Jason Sudeikis’ “Ted Lasso.” Known for his songwriting skills, Mumford said that stripping himself from the expectation of writing lyrics actually enhanced his ability to capture emotions.
Words in songs often come form personal places, and utilizing only instrumentation removed the expectation for “secretive” and “authentic” information about his own life to influence the body of work.
“The idea of doing something without lyrics was exciting to me, just because of the freedom that it brings, where you can express yourself emotionally through just music and not have to worry about lyrics,” Mumford said. “The process of just writing melody was a really healthy one for me, I think, as a musician. It reminded me of my primary job, which is really music-based rather than lyric-based.”
It’s Best Not to Overthink Lyrics and Production When Creating a Song
Mumford still got to flex his lyric-writing skills for “Ted Lasso,” as he also did the theme song for the show alongside Tom Howe. Having crafted hit songs like “I Will Wait” alongside his band, the singer said his best songs have been known to happen rather quickly.
“The recording of it happened in two days. And I think often those are the best songs, the ones that happen quickest, where you don’t have too much time to think about it,” he said. “You don’t have too much time to ruminate and try and perfect it, because it’s never going to be perfect. It’s got to just have heart.”
Scoring Films Allows Writers to Explore a Range of Styles
Members of Nine Inch Nails produce more than just rock content. During the keynote conversation with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, moderator Shirley Halperin dug into their scoring success on a range of film projects, from “The Social Network” to “Watchmen,” “Soul” and “Mank.”
Writing music for the screen has given the artists their fair share of challenges, the most recent being composing big band and orchestral scores. But without the opportunity to score films, the band members said they’d miss out on exploring the various realms of music.
“We feel really proud to be involved, and proud of the journey that we were put on,” Reznor said. “That’s one of the things that’s great about working on films. In our life in Nine Inch Nails, we kind of don’t know what to expect — we have a pretty good idea of what road we’re going to go down or what the future might hold. With film, it’s like you’re on a finite, intense journey that might lead you down paths that in our other lives we wouldn’t get to go on.”
Songs With Inspirational Messages Are In; Songs with “Swagger” Are Not
The Sonic Storytelling for Brands panel brought together a host of experts to discuss the impact of music on commercials and brand advertising. As some pointed out, the pre-COVID era often saw brand requests for songs that had “swagger,” as the advertisements would emphasize the luxurious.
Those requests are virtually gone in the pandemic-riddled world. Instead, as music producer and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder noted, songs that speak to the need for hope have found their footing. His song “Better Days,” for example, has been picked up for advertising by a handful of brands.
“If you’re writing things about overcoming or more intimate, like inspirational or aspirational … those are really the types of songs that it turns out work for TV and brands and advertising agencies,” Tedder said.
Music Videos Are Breaking Piggy Banks and Boundaries
Music videos used to be about homogeneous styles, but the art form has seen an immense diversification of form.
In the keynote conversation with award-winning director Dave Meyers, moderated by Chris Willman, the creator discussed how both up-and-coming and leading artists have experimented with storytelling in music videos. Meyers has directed for Drake, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and numerous other artists, with multiple videos garnering over a billion views.
Some projects have relatively big budgets (Swift’s “ME!” and Grande’s “Positions”), while others are cheaper (Eilish’s “Bad Guy”), but the overarching trend is that each video helps individualize the artist while managing to stand out in comparison to their other videos.
“There is no artistic limitation, and the budgets are back — and I’m on this sort of personal high,” he said. “I’m lucky to get phone calls from artists that are pushing the meter. And then I feel I have an obligation to those artists to do the same with my visuals and to take swings.”
Social Apps Like TikTok Are Expanding and Leveling the Playing Field
Part of the shift towards diverse music projects can be traced back to social media apps like TikTok, Meyers said.
“I would say that TikTok and all the other avenues that people are expressing, I welcome it,” he said. “I think it’s building another generation of musical-minded people and probably a lot more voices are going to emerge from that. And I’m already seeing that in music videos.”
One of the bigger trends he noticed is that a new set of names are popping up on the credits for music videos that Meyers was previously unfamiliar with. And the new generation of creative outlets has affected other entertainment realms in positive ways, as well.
“It feels, to me, on the ground floor, that when you’re watching TV or you’re watching videos or whatever, that people are just coming at it left and right from places that we never got to see before. It’s such an exciting time,” Meyers said.
Zoom Showcases Help Music Bookers Find Talent
During the Music Bookers Roundtable with some of the industry’s leading professionals, moderator Jem Aswad discussed the effects of the pandemic on booking talent for talk shows and networks. Virtual showcases, it turns out, have eased the burden by allowing bookers to hear clear performances that aren’t muddied by crowds — as concert audios often are.
“Attending those showcases that the labels were doing were super helpful to learn about new people and not just listen to a song,” said “Late Night with Seth Meyers” music executive Jeremiah Silva. “Some of them blew you away on Zoom, which is such a good sign.”
Talk Show Performances Saw an Innovation Boom
Coronavirus-related safety protocols required that most TV performances take place off-set, and though the limitations brought new challenges, Silva said the creative solutions were an unexpected silver lining.
No longer limited to constraints placed on them by studios, artists were able to customize performances precisely to their own interests. Of course, many elected to do stripped-back piano performances, but shows found some artists doing black-and-white recordings, backyard bands or, in the case of Katy Perry, elaborate green-screen sets.
“The artists are the creative force, and to let these artists be creative in these moments when they were stuck wherever they were to figure out how to still make art and be creative and do it differently because of what was going on,” Silva said.
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